The Cleveland Cavaliers were left for dead.
It was a dark day in the middle of December when the news broke that Darius Garland would miss over a month with a broken jaw, and that Evan Mobley would miss 6-8 weeks due to knee surgery. Without Mobley over the past few games the Cavs had stumbled to three straight losses.
The alarms were sounding. This season was over; it was time to wave the white flag and look to the future. Donovan Mitchell was going to leave, and the Cavs needed to trade him now. Georges Niang, Dean Wade, Isaac Okoro - anyone the Cavaliers would get an asset for in a deal needed to be sold.
The problem with the doom-and-gloom report was that no one remembered to tell the Cavaliers. They won three games in a row immediately following the news, then shortly ripped off eight-straight wins to start the new year.
The Cavaliers have been on fire
In 18 games without Mobley and Garland, the Cavaliers have gone 14-4; that ties the LA Clippers for the fewest losses over those 42 days. Cleveland has the best net rating of any team in that span, defeating opponents by an average of 10.8 points per 100 possessions, ahead of the Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.
That's driven by an absolutely smothering defense, with Jarrett Allen walling off the paint and Isaac Okoro and Dean Wade entering the starting lineup as two of the best perimeter defenders in the league. They are holding opponents to just 109.6 points per 100 possessions, 6.3 points below the league average this season.
As Jarrett Allen is playing the best stretch of his career, Donovan Mitchell has slid over to start at point guard and thrived. He is averaging 28 points, 5.0 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game since Garland and Mobley went out, and the Cavaliers outscore opponents by 16.8 points per 100 possessions when he is on the court. Only OG Anunoby and Kawhi Leonard have a higher net rating than Mitchell over that span.
The Cavaliers' outlook is bright
What does this success translate to? A surge up the Eastern Conference standings. The Cavaliers are now 27-16 for the season, fifth in the East and just 1.5 games out of third. What's more, they are set up for success moving forward, with the league's fourth-easiest remaining schedule.
That has the outlook for the Cavaliers looking bright. ESPN's Basketball Power Index ranks each team in the league, and they have the Cavs ranked fifth in the NBA and third in the Eastern Conference, behind Boston and (barely) Philadelphia.
Given the remaining schedules for the rest of the East contenders, the Cavaliers are now projected by BPI to finish 54-28, a three-game improvement on last season and good for second place in the Eastern Conference, a game ahead of both Philadelphia and Milwaukee and three ahead of the New York Knicks.
There is a lot of basketball still to be played. The Cavs have to integrate Evan Mobley and Darius Garland back into the lineup without losing this momentum. Other injuries could strike. There is plenty of competition in a loaded East playoff picture.
But six weeks ago, the Cavaliers looked left for dead. Now they not only have new life, they have their eyes set on higher heights than last year. Their goals heading into the season are still on the table, and they have an excellent shot at pursuing those goals with home-court advantage in at least one round, if not two.
The Cavaliers never lost hope. The analytical models believe. Will the rest of the league come around? If the Cavs keep winning, they will have no choice.